Feathers

Feet on the Ground, Head in the Clouds

An original retelling of a classic Jewish fable.

 

“Well, look,” said the captain.  “That’s something you don’t see every day.”

The ship had stopped, as much as a sailing ship on the sea can, and the entire crew had gathered on deck.  Some looked at each other nervously, while others gazed out over the water in awe.

In the water before the boat stood a bird.  A bird, standing in the sea. Standing. Like a vision out of a dream.

The size of the thing was beyond comprehension.  The warm water of the sea lapped around its ankles, and the top of its crest scraped across the clear blue sky.  The captain could just see the great feathered head twitching this way and that. As though the bird were listening to something.

“What do you want us to do?” whispered the first mate finally, breaking the tense and reverential silence.

“Hmm,” said the captain.  “It is a sticky question, very sticky.”  He gazed up at the bird’s tremendous pointed beak, and down at its tremendous scaly legs.  “Well, look,” he said finally.  “The water barely comes up to the thing’s ankles.”

“Yes, captain.”

“Hmm.”  The captain frowned in thought.  After several moments, he nodded, satisfied.

“We are all very smelly,” he declared.  “And the water here is clearly quite shallow.  We shall all have a bath."

The crew looked at the captain, and then at the bird, and shifted uncomfortably.

“We shall what, now?” asked the first mate.

“A bath!  It’s just the thing.  Hop to, hop to.”  The captain began removing his own shirt.

“But, captain,” ventured the ship’s carpenter.  “The bird.”

“Yes.  Quite an amazing thing to see.”

“You want us to… bathe at its feet?”

“Well, look.  The water must be shallow here, see how it laps about the great beast’s ankles?”

“Yes, but-”

“And don’t you agree we’ve all gone a bit smelly?”

“Of course, but-”

“Then off with your clothes, my lads, and into the water we go!”

The crew looked around at each other, and began reluctantly to remove their garments.

“Halt!” declared a deep, booming voice from above.  The crew quaked in fear, and the captain dropped his trousers with a startled cry.  Had the great bird spoken?  But no, this voice seemed to have come from close by, even from his own rigging, though when he looked up, he could see no one there.

“What was that?” the captain called up to the sky.

“Halt!  Do not bathe here, beneath the feet of the great Ziz!”

The captain looked up at the gigantic bird.  It fluffed and shifted its wings, and the captain felt his hair blow back in the sudden breeze.  “You mean that great big bird?”

“That’s the one.”

“Well, look.  Why not?”

“Because,” said the voice, “I am a heavenly messenger sent from on high to deliver this message: don’t.”

“But the water is so shallow, and who knows when we shall have the chance again?  I do not know if heavenly messengers have noses, sir or madam, but if you do, you must realize how much we need it.”

“Be that as it may, your lack of hygiene is of no importance.”

“Why?”

“Because… the water here is not so shallow as you think.”

“It’s not?” The captain looked down at the water again.  “But it only comes up to this very large bird’s ankles.”

“But the bird,” declared the heavenly messenger, “has really very tall feet.”

“Hmm,” said the captain.  “How tall?”

“So tall.”

“How do you know?”

“How do I- I’m a heavenly messenger!”

“Still,” the captain sniffed.

“If you must know,” said the heavenly messenger, “I once saw a carpenter drop his hatchet over the side of his ship, right at the very spot where you are now, and it took… seven… YEARS to reach the bottom!"

“Seven years!” gasped the captain.  “You don’t say!”

“I do say.”

“Hmm,” said the captain.  “That really is very deep.”

“As I said,” said the heavenly messenger.

The captain looked at the bird with newfound respect, and then picked up his shirt with a sigh.  “Sorry, lads,” he said.  “Looks like there’s no bath in store for us, after all.”

The crew stopped fiddling with bits of clothing and did their best to look sorry.

“Well, look,” said the captain.  “It cannot be helped.  We’d best move off.  Now, where has my mate gone off to?”

Above it all, the Ziz scratched its head against the dome of the sky and listened to the call of the birds on the breeze, and for that moment cared not a bit for the world below - hardly remembered it was there.